Steve Hagen began studying Buddhism in 1967 and in 1975 became a student of Zen master Dainin Katagiri, who has been honored in the writings of Natalie Goldberg. Now a Zen priest, Hagen teaches at the Dharma Field Meditation and Learning Center in Minneapolis. His book Buddhism Plain & Simple is one of the top five bestselling Buddhism books in America.
In the 42 brief chapters in this work, Hagen sets out to refine and clarify some of the essentials of Zen practice. Attending to the present moment is preferable to trying to understand, control, or manipulate it. "We are foolish to think we can have mastery over what is not ours to master," he observes. Yet we persist in our futile efforts to be masters of the universe. A lot of effort goes into trying to please and to protect ourselves. Both goals are impossible given the ever changing nature of the universe.
Zen is about freeing ourselves from dualistic thinking whereby we divide the universe into this and that, self and other, right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly. Such thinking inevitably leads to anxiety, fear, and unhappiness. To approach everyday life with these prepackaged assumptions is to court disaster since things never sit still for our expectations.
Hagen clarifies what he sees as some severe misunderstandings about Buddhism and reincarnation, resignation, and sitting meditation. He is upset with those who practice Zen in order to achieve enlightenment, as though it were a prize to be attained. Instead he states firmly: "Zen practice is attending to this moment, seeing it for what it is, which is nothing in particular, nothing graspable."
Key Zen concepts are presented directly and clearly here. To add to the accessibility of his teaching, Hagen uses many Zen stories and vignettes to illustrate his points. Here is one:
"There is a Zen story about a student who made a special point of keeping all the Buddhist precepts. Once, however, while walking home at night, he stepped on something that made a squishing sound. He imagined that he must have stepped on an egg-bearing frog. Immediately he was filled with fear and regret, for the precepts include not killing. When he went to sleep that night he dreamed that hundreds of frogs came to him, demanding his life in exchange.
"When morning came, he went back to the place the incident had occurred and found that he had stepped on an overripe eggplant. Suddenly his confusion stopped.
"From that moment on, the story says, he knew how to truly practice Zen and how to truly follow the precepts."